SARA moves to full House

Look up the text of HR 1837, the Services Acquisition and Reform Act

A House committee approved sweeping services acquisition reform in a late-night markup session May 7, but not before adding several measures intended to bring more oversight to the process.

The Services Acquisition Reform Act provides for training of an acquisition work force within federal agencies and incorporates commercial contracting practices. Rep. Tom Davis (R.-Va.), the bill's primary author, believes the bill will make it easier for agencies to procure services from contractors by using commercial techniques, including performance-based contracting, that are not commonly used in government. Critics say the bill offers too few safeguards against abuse.

Davis also chairs the House Government Reform Committee, which amended the bill.

Rep. Doug Ose (R.-Calif.) passed an amendment calling for an Office of Management and Budget review of two key provisions of the bill two years after it is enacted. One provision encourages agencies to use performance-based contracting by allowing agencies to treat them as commercial item contracts in many cases. The other provision expands the definition of "commercial entity" to include any business that has done 90 percent or more of its business outside of the government for at least three years.

Under the Federal Acquisition Regulation, commercial item contracts escape some of the scrutiny that other contracts get, including the Truth In Negotiations Act (TINA). The committee added another amendment, authored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D.-Calif.) that invokes TINA and other oversight procedures for commercial item contracts arising from SARA. Davis amended Waxman's amendment to exempt acquisitions of less than $15 million, but otherwise offered no objections.

Davis also amended the bill to restore a provision that exempts information technology procurements from restrictions on acquiring foreign products set out in the Trade Agreements Act of 1979. The acquisitions must be commercial items to merit the exemption. That provision had appeared in Davis' first attempt to pass SARA last year, but was missing from the version he introduced last week.

The bill would establish a chief acquisition officer in each agency, appointed by the agency head, who must be a non-career employee. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D.-N.Y.), as she promised at last week's initial hearing on the bill, introduced an amendment to strike the term "non-career," but it failed.

Davis argued that the purpose of the position is to establish a high-level policy leader who has the access needed to integrate the acquisition work force into the agency's fabric.

"We have found that the [chief information officers], in many cases, that they didn't have the clout to affect policy," Davis said. "This is a policy position. This is not a contracting officer position."

Unmoved, Maloney said that political appointees hold their positions for an average of 18 months, too short a time to wield much influence. In addition, she said it is an affront to federal employees to be told that political connections are necessary to hold the position. "That no matter how experience you are, how accomplished you are, how seasoned you are, you are not qualified for the top spot," she said.

Maloney also failed to enact an amendment that would create a governmentwide database of contractor performance information, to provide suspension and debarment officials with adequate information. Currently, she said, there is no central repository for information about contractors who are performing poorly but haven't yet been debarred.

"Often this allows federal contractors to repeatedly break federal laws, and continue to get millions of dollars in federal contracts," she said.

Davis opposed the amendment, saying it would put a burden on a contractor with a tarnished record trying to continue to win business. "We need to be careful about presuming a business is guilty just because a case has been filed," he said.

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